As Ben Jealous runs to the left, some Democrats keep distance or embrace Hogan

and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous is a rock star in national progressive circles. Bernie Sanders has visited Maryland twice to deliver his blessing. Other prominent senators, including Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, also have come to praise Jealous. And Jealous raises money across the country that other Maryland candidates can only dream of.

But at home, Jealous is showing weakness with a key constituency: Maryland Democratic officials.

While some party leaders are working hard to elect him, some current and former Democratic leaders are keeping their distance — alienated by Jealous’ left-leaning positions and several political missteps.

Some have endorsed him tepidly, others not at all. Some are playing up their ties to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan while officially remaining neutral. A few publicly back Hogan’s re-election.

Former Del. Tim Maloney is one of the latter. A veteran of Maryland Democratic politics who actively supported his party’s gubernatorial nominees in Martin O’Malley in 2006 and 2010 and Anthony Brown in 2014, he’s lined up this year behind Hogan.

“Ben Jealous’ platform is so extreme, so undisciplined and so reckless that it would be bad for the state of Maryland and bad for the Democratic Party,” the former Prince George’s County lawmaker said. “If you look at the cumulative cost of its campaign proposals, it runs into the billions.”

Jealous counters that proposals such as universal health care or debt-free college would improve Marylanders’ lives and save the state money in the long run.

Kevin Harris, senior adviser to Jealous, said his candidate isn’t worried about Democratic elected leaders who keep him at arm’s length. “They have to run their campaigns the way they see fit. We’re going to run ours the way we see fit,” Harris said. “It’s incumbent on them to explain why they think Larry Hogan’s incrementalism is a better approach than the solutions we’re putting on the table.”

While state and local party leaders might not play the role they used to Maryland politics, they can still be valuable allies to a campaign whose game plan is based on turning out voters.

And there are signs that Jealous’ problems in his party aren’t confined to elected officials. Despite his decisive victory in June’s primary, a Goucher Poll released last week showed Jealous leading Hogan among Democrats by only 48 percent to 38 percent. The governor holds an overall 22-point lead.

Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said a local official’s endorsement can translate into get-out-the-vote support for a gubernatorial candidate, even if the two don’t completely align on issues. That’s why it’s important for someone running for governor to cultivate down-ticket candidates.

“These are the folks you keep as part of your family,” Eberly said.

State Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, is playing up her ability to work with Hogan over any loyalty to the top of her ticket. A flier the Maryland Democratic Senate Caucus Committee is mailing to voters in support of Klausmeier displays a photo of her sitting beside the governor at a bill-signing ceremony. Klausmeier appears to be talking to Hogan as he beams at her.

While Hogan has endorsed her challenger, Republican Del. Christian Miele, Klausmeier says she’s emphasizing to voters her bipartisan approach. Klausmeier said she isn’t endorsing Hogan — but she isn’t embracing Jealous either.

“People are very happy that I’m working across the aisle and that I’m a cooperative person,” she said.

Klausmeier would not normally have been seated in April at the bill-signing table. The governor is usually flanked by the Senate president and the speaker of the House. But that day, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller left early and others in Senate leadership were not there. Klausmeier, in her role of deputy majority leader, filled in -- and got her photo.

Voters around the state are seeing examples of Democratic officials with little enthusiasm for Jealous’ candidacy. There’s Sen. Jim Brochin, who after a narrow loss in the primary for Baltimore County executive jumped ship and endorsed Hogan.

Then, there’s former Del. Johnny Olszewski Jr., the winner of that primary, who has ducked questions about whether he supports Jealous, despite their agreement on many policies. Asked at a debate to rate his support for Jealous on a scale of 1 to 10, Olszewski would say only: “I’m a Democrat who supports Democrats.”

Despite facing a Hogan-endorsed opponent on the lower Eastern Shore, Democratic state Sen. Jim Mathias of Ocean City has criticized Jealous’ policies as “too extreme and too costly” for his constitutents.

The Hogan campaign has released a tally of 53 “Democratic leaders” who have endorsed the governor. While the list contains many small-town officials, long-retired lawmakers and people who owe their jobs to Hogan, it includes such names as former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor of Western Maryland, former Lt. Gov. Melvin “Mickey” Steinberg and former Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector.

Hogan campaign spokesman Scott Sloofman said the governor has earned the support of Democrats because “he’s the only candidate in this race with a record of achieving bipartisan, commonsense solutions.”

Some Democratic officials have been sitting out the gubernatorial campaign. Comptroller Peter Franchot has said he probably won’t vote in the governor’s race, and he’s left little doubt he’s looking forward as a fiscal conservative to four more years of working with Hogan.

Retiring Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett, an African-American like Jealous and a liberal by most standards, has withheld his support. Spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Leggett is concerned that some of Jealous’ tax and spending policies would hurt wealthy Montgomery, the county with the most residents and one where Jealous needs to run up the score to win.

Lacefield pointed to Jealous’ support for a so-called millionaire’s tax and a rebalancing of education aid formulas, as well as the candidate’s opposition to a state incentive package to help it lure Amazon’s second headquarters to Montgomery.

To be sure, there are many Maryland Democratic leaders who are strongly supporting Jealous’ election.

The campaign on Saturday afternoon announced a Sunday morning rally of more than 40 Maryland Democratic officials who support Jealous, including U.S. Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes and Anthony Brown.

Del. Shane Robinson of Montgomery County, for instance, says Jealous is “a real progressive and he has a vision to make life better for Marylanders. “I am an enthusiastic supporter, and as a member of the Democratic Party, it’s upsetting to me that everyone isn’t on board,” he said.

One top Democrat who is barely on board is the state Senate president. When Miller finally offered a public endorsement of Jealous two months after the primary, Miller mentioned the candidate’s name just once. After talking for several minutes about the need to improve Maryland’s public schools, Miller wrapped up by saying: “People are coming together and we are here to say, ‘Education and Jealous in November.’ We can make it happen.”

State Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, has criticized Jealous’ proposals on criminal justice and the court system as ill-informed. Zirkin said he’s never met Jealous and isn’t involved in the campaign.

“From afar, it looks dysfunctional,” Zirkin said. “He has shown a lack of understanding of the state of Maryland – which is a significant issue if you’re running to be the governor.”

Maloney, the former Prince George’s County delegate, said there are three main reasons some Democrats are keeping their distance: differences over policy, skepticism over his chances of winning, and personality.

“They don’t like his style, his aloofness, his failure to build relationships throughout the state,” Maloney said. He pointed to Jealous’ decision not to attend the Maryland Association of Counties convention in August — a traditional venue for networking between state and local political figures.

Skipping MACO is just one of several Jealous moves that some political veterans see as mistakes, including his use of profanity while answering a reporter’s question at a news conference and his attempt — subsequently rescinded — to veto a State House reporter’s participation in a debate panel Monday.

Harris said some Democrats may be having trouble adjusting to an innovative candidate who’s never held office. Jealous is the former head of the national NAACP and a venture capitalist.

“Ben is a different kind of candidate,” he said. “This is a person who comes to politics from being a civil rights leader and a business person and not as a person trying to climb the political ladder from one level to the next.”

Harris suggested some Democratic officials may pay a political price after a Jealous victory.

“It will be up to those officials to explain why they chose to be on the other side,” he said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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